How Our Fear of Death Helps Us Achieve the Extraordinary

A Canadian political scientist looks at how a common fear can motivate us to solve problems, seek spiritual guidance and accomplish incredible feats.

A collage of different family portraits.Illustrations by Nikki Ernst

Early questions

As my children, Ben and Kate, have grown up, I’ve been struck—and sometimes saddened and alarmed, as so many parents are—by their struggles to come to terms with death. I knew abstractly that an appreciation of death would dawn on them at some point, but I hadn’t remotely expected the process would be so explicit and heart-rending.

At around four or five years of age, a child starts to grasp, dimly at first, that death involves a kind of imponderable loss, that this loss is final and that loved ones—mothers, fathers, grandparents—will eventually die. In our family, the process has involved, indeed it still involves, age-appropriate, frank conversations with our children; and I’ve learned that the process through which children recognize and accept death’s reality is enormously traumatic and that their emerging world views play a critical role in how they manage this trauma.

Ben asked his first explicit question about death when he was five and a half. He was having a bath, and, with soapsuds up to his chin, he paused his splashing and asked my wife, Sarah—completely out of the blue—what happens after someone dies.

While Sarah and I have our individual convictions, we don’t presume to have the final answers to such questions. So she replied that some folks think that people go to heaven when they die, while others think they’re reborn as another person, animal or plant, while still others think nothing happens at all—that death is simply the end of life. Ben wasn’t happy with the last option. “I think they go to heaven,” he said firmly. Sarah offered that he might be right.

She told me about the conversation later, and we didn’t think about it further. But the next day, on a piece of blue construction paper, Ben sketched a little boy dressed in an orange shirt and green pants. The boy’s face was in profile, so he faced sideways across the sheet of paper. From a jagged, black slash representing the boy’s mouth emerged a speech bubble containing the words “MUM DAD” in big, bold letters.

Sarah asked Ben what the picture represented. “This is me in heaven, Mum. It’s blue paper because heaven is in the sky. And I’m shouting for you and Dad because I’m lost.”

Our daughter, Kate, started to ponder death a little earlier in her life. Her perplexity and discomfort revealed themselves differently than they did with Ben. She started to ask the question “Will it die?” about things around her, both animate and inanimate—about trees, worms, rocks and toads. Still, I remained largely unaware of her emerging concern about death until one morning when she was upset because something wasn’t going quite her way. I put her on my knee and held her close: “Sometimes you can’t get what you want,” I said. “That’s part of what you learn as you grow up.”

“But I don’t want to grow up,” she replied adamantly.

“Why?”

“Because then I’ll have to die.”

This was one of those moments—not uncommon as a parent—when one is at a loss for words. Kate’s logic seemed unchallengeable: if she stayed a child, she could ignore the possibility of death.

I’ve found our children’s struggles with the idea of death acutely poignant but also enlightening: they’ve helped me see that fear of death is one of our most powerful motivators. We work hard to manage this fear and, in the process, often accomplish extraordinary things, many wonderful, yet some dreadful.

I think we fear death for five main reasons. Most obviously, we fear the physical discomfort and pain that often accompany dying. People will sometimes say that they’re afraid of dying but not so much of death. I agree that we’re afraid of dying, but I’m sure almost all of us are frightened of death, too, whether we admit it or not.

We’re frightened partly because we don’t want to be separated from our friends and loved ones, especially from loved ones who depend on us. More metaphysically, we’re frightened because death tells us we’re transient and ephemeral; if we don’t believe in an afterlife or a soul, then we likely believe that death will erase our consciousness—the very seat of our sense of self. Also, we fear that death will render our existence meaningless—that after all the turmoil of our lives, they’ll have had, in the grand scheme of things, no reason, point or purpose. We may even be forgotten, or at least not remembered in the way we’d like.

And we’re frightened, perhaps most importantly, because death is unfathomable, and unfathomable things are usually scary. Absent a spiritual doctrine that specifically explains it, death remains one of the deepest, darkest unknowns of life. It’s the ultimate, final edge between the known and unknown.

Considering death’s emotional and metaphysical import, we give it remarkably little conscious thought. In wealthy societies, we can easily avoid thinking about death until a certain age because it’s mainly hidden away in hospitals and old-age homes. As we get into our 50s and 60s, we might ponder it a bit more because friends start to die, as well as parents and older relatives, and because the remaining years suddenly seem so few. Still, we’re largely unaware that we’re always managing at one level or another the anxiety the prospect of death causes us.

Immortality Projects

Virtually all living things have a deep and ineradicable drive to survive. For early humans, the tension between that drive and the emerging awareness of eventual annihilation produced a focal anxiety. Realization that death can occur—randomly and uncontrollably—at any moment made this anxiety even worse. Today it remains an intrinsic, though often subconscious, feature of our modern minds; and if we don’t mitigate it in some way, it can overwhelm and paralyze us.

Of course, human beings have many motivations, and different circumstances can trigger different motivations in various combinations. But the need to cope with the fear of death is common to almost all of us, and powerful. So we tell ourselves stories about who we are and how we should act that help us believe we can heroically transcend death.

Such “hero stories” are infinite in their variety. We might, for instance, weave our concept of our self into a story about someone or something we see as noble, powerful and enduring. In this kind of story, we could be a devotee of a god, a follower of a charismatic leader, a member of an ethnic group or nation, or even a fan of a notable sports team. Or we might instead tell a story in which we play the role of hero directly. Here we could be raising a child, founding a company, fighting a war, discovering a new scientific fact, constructing a building, writing a book, leading a community group, saving the world—or perhaps just being a terrific employee or friend.

Whatever our hero story’s content, though, it helps us believe that we’re involved in an “immortality project,” to use the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s term: we foster literal immortality via the heavens, souls and afterlives central to most religions or allow a symbolic part of ourselves to persist beyond our physical death in something like a child, company, building, book, ethnic group, nation or a friend’s memories. We hope and believe, Becker writes, that the things we create are of such “lasting worth and meaning” that they “outlive or outshine death and decay.”

So far, so good. But we can’t create these hero stories and immortality projects out of thin air. To be compelling—not just to ourselves but especially to the people who matter to us—they must connect with our surrounding culture. In other words, our hero stories need to make sense within the common world view that we share with members of our group or community, whether it’s a neighbourhood association, sports club, political party, business or nation. A group’s world view always includes a rich conception of “we,” especially regarding why the group exists and its history; it also usually includes ideas about what counts as virtuous behaviour and as fairness and justice in members’ dealings with each other.

Here’s the key point: when each of us wants to figure out what life projects will help our individual selves endure, literally or symbolically, we look to what’s meaningful and valuable within the groups we’re members of and that matter to us. And to find out what’s meaningful and valuable, we use as reference points these groups’ shared beliefs about identity, good behaviour, fairness and justice. We seek to be heroes according to their codes; doing so gives us a sense of purpose and lessens our fear of transience.

Religion, of course, often serves this purpose. Regardless of the truth of any specific religious world view, one of religion’s psychological functions—perhaps its central function—is to alleviate its adherents’ anxiety about death. The stories religions tell give their believers’ lives meaning, make those believers’ eventual deaths appear understandable and often promise immortality through an enduring soul or spirit.

More generally, and maybe a bit cynically, one might say that we’ve learned to manage anxiety about death by developing a prodigious capacity for denial. Some scholars even argue that denial of death is the secret of our species’ evolutionary success. Once we evolved this cognitive ability, or at least the ability to keep death anxiety at bay, we could deploy our intelligence to further our survival and propagation—and eventually to dominate the planet—without suffering the paralyzing anxiety that this intelligence would otherwise have caused us.

As we try to craft an idea of an honest and astute hope in an increasingly dangerous world, we must recognize that the tension between our awareness of our certain death and our drive to survive is an immutable feature of our condition. It’s one of those pitiless, inescapable aspects of our reality that we must accept and learn to work with. Death anxiety pushes its way into our consciousness when we’re children, and it remains with us through our lives, although we do our best to bury it underneath our daily busyness. Some of us may “sublimate” it, as psychologists say, into a drive to do something exceptional or even noble. But even if we don’t or can’t, for our mental and social health, each of us still needs a hero story and immortality project, and our projects and stories must make sense within the shared world views of the groups that matter to us.

Each Other’s Villain

At the age of six, Ben came across an article about how vast numbers of sharks are killed each year to get their fins for soup. Incensed, he drew a picture of a little submarine that could roam the oceans and cut the shark fishers’ lines. In doing so, he was writing the first lines of a hero story. It drew on our family’s larger world view, with its keen awareness of nature, and on what seemed to be his innate moral impulses to prevent suffering and promote fairness. It gave him a purpose that addressed the problem at hand, and in doing so may have also alleviated some of his emerging death anxiety.

Over the next years, as Ben grew into a thoughtful boy, his stories became more detailed and emotionally variegated. By age nine, he wanted to be an oceanographer—and to find Atlantis. His stories will continue to change as he gets older; it takes experimentation to find one that works, and we continually revise them as our lives evolve.

The hero stories we tell ourselves as adults are far more elaborate than those of children because they must connect with the more elaborate network of concepts, beliefs and values that make up our adult world views and the world views of the groups we’re part of. They’re also usually far less grandiose and narcissistic because they must make sense in the context of hard realities—Atlantis, after all, doesn’t exist—and because other members of our community generally find narcissism offensive. And, lastly, they’re far less accessible to us in our everyday thoughts, because we feel a bit foolish when we think of ourselves as heroes and somehow immortal.

But the stories are still there, deep down. My story seems to be about being a good father, husband, teacher and member of my community—yes—but also about reducing conflict in the world, calling out greed, selfishness and recklessness, and protecting nature from human avarice and folly. These commitments are partly derived from the ideas of justice that I share with the liberal and progressive groups in Canadian society that I feel I’m part of.

In my writing, public commentary and speeches, I regularly engage in conversation with climate “contrarians” who reject mainstream climate science almost entirely. Sometimes when I speak to an audience of folks in the fossil-fuel industry, they cross their arms the moment I mention the scientific consensus on the subject. Through these conversations, I’ve come to understand that these folks have their own hero stories. They, too, are members of families and communities—teachers, farmers, line workers, business people and others who sincerely believe their hard work and enterprise are meeting people’s needs and solving society’s problems.

For those who work in the fossil-fuel industry, in places like the oil sands in northern Alberta (people I know to some extent from my years working in the oil patch), digging up bitumen gunk and converting it into fuel for our cars isn’t a hideous despoliation of nature but an exciting and noble expression of human will, exuberance and self-determination. Many see themselves as challenging raw nature at the frontier of the Canadian wilderness and turning it into something enormously useful for everyday people. Key elements of their hero stories are moral commitments to personal freedom and responsibility and to the right to keep the fruits of one’s ingenuity and effort—commitments partly derived from the notions of fairness and justice shared with their own (usually more conservative) groups in Canadian society.

When I pop up in their lives and start talking about climate change, they see someone representative of larger forces that could take away the fruits of their enterprise and limit their freedom. In their minds, I’m suggesting that government should steal their wealth and bind them in a web of rules and regulations because it’s hard to imagine any meaningful response to climate change that doesn’t involve bigger and more intrusive government—not just national government, but global government, too. So I’m threatening to cut the heart out of their hero stories, the stories that protect them from the universal, omnipresent and potentially overpowering fear of death and meaninglessness.

The commonly proposed solutions to climate change represent just about everything they dread most: constraint, impoverishment and subservience—perhaps even subservience to foreigners. No wonder they get angry, and no wonder they’re willing to do anything necessary—including dismissing clear scientific evidence as nonsense and even declaring scientists to be liars—to defend themselves, their world views and everything those world views mean to them.

On my side, when my interlocutors dismiss scientific fact and attack scientists, they threaten to cut the heart out of my own hero story, as I fight greed and recklessness to protect a planet I fear will die. I’m then inclined to see their moral commitments to personal freedom, private property and the right to self-betterment as nothing more than a cover for rank selfishness—and for pillaging nature while the pillaging is good. Their expression of these commitments, by this view, simply confirms that they’re reprehensible.

That’s the essence of the mirror image: each side plays the villain in the other’s hero story. Those villains and our individual ideas of justice make our heroism possible; we all see ourselves—we must see ourselves—as struggling for the good against the bad, even if we don’t consciously admit it. And this kind of self-perception appears all the way up and down the socio-economic and power hierarchy on each side of the dispute, from workers angered by the burden of carbon taxes to middle-class folks arguing about climate change around a dinner table and on to American billionaires—such as Tom Steyer and Charles Koch—duking it out over climate policy by supporting opposing politicians in U.S. congressional races.

So we go around in cycles of attack and counterattack, and the debate becomes increasingly antagonistic and polarized while climate change itself isn’t effectively addressed.

Sensing this underlying psychological dynamic at work, some prominent commentators and academics have declared a “pox on both your houses.” They’ve concluded that the truth about climate change must lie somewhere in the middle. The problem, they say, is neither as bad as the advocates for climate action claim nor as irrelevant as the contrarians assume.

But that’s an error in logic. Just because each side exhibits roughly equal self-righteous fervour doesn’t mean each must be equally wrong about climate change. The social psychodrama surrounding climate change tells us a lot about what makes us tick but next to nothing about the underlying problem in dispute.

To learn about that, we need science, and the science says the advocates for bold action are almost certainly right: climate change is a monumental threat to humanity’s future.

Getting Beyond Fear

The mood shift that much of humanity has experienced in the last two decades—from excitement about the future’s boundless possibility to deep pessimism about worsening insecurity and diminishing opportunity—still seems to be underway; it may even be gaining momentum in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This shift is occurring, I’m convinced, because many of us, indeed perhaps most of us now, are increasingly afraid. And we’re increasingly afraid largely because we can’t reconcile the profound and rapid changes we sense are happening around us with the assumptions about social order, fairness, opportunity and identity that often remain at the core of our world views.

A problem like climate change is deeply contentious, not just because of its complexity and likely severe consequences for people and societies down the road but also because we know that if it’s really happening, any meaningful response will implicate every facet of our lives and almost inevitably challenge some of our central world-view commitments, whether they be (for those on the ideological right) commitments to limited government regulation and the unrestricted right to acquire wealth or (for those on the ideological left) commitments to local, small-scale food and energy production and even to social equality and democracy, both of which will likely be ever harder to sustain as the climate crisis worsens.

Our world views connect us with our communities, stabilize our sense of who we are as individuals and groups through time, anchor our visions of a desirable and hopeful future and, not least, provide the raw materials for our personal hero stories. So we’re terrified when they’re threatened and often come passionately and sometimes even blindly to their defence.

Quite understandably, some of us transform our fear into anger. Worse, rather than acknowledging that “the enemy is (partly) us” to explain the many disruptive changes we’re experiencing, some of us create in our minds an external, personified enemy—an analogue of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, under labels like environmentalist or capitalist, white or brown, or Christian or Muslim—whom we can blame for the disruptions and portray as our villains in new, angry hero stories.

In the end, though, as we all essentially know, such embittered reactions only make us more afraid and more divided—and collectively less able to solve our common problems. We need instead world views that are complementary enough to unite us around an immortality project for our entire species as we work to stop, and then reverse, the rapid deterioration of our planet’s vital natural systems—world views that help us surmount fear by inspiring, rather than extinguishing, the hope that motivates our agency.

Humanity may have barely a decade or two to shift its dominant world views in such positive directions. To act so fast, we must understand better what’s going on in our own world views and those of other people and groups. Then we’ll see better who might be our natural allies, who might be persuaded to become our allies and who’s likely to oppose us implacably in the coming social and political battles for a better future.

Next, discover how traditional tips can help us mourn in the modern era.

Excerpted from Commanding Hope by Thomas Homer-Dixon. Copyright © 2020 Resource & Conflict Analysis Inc. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada